Commentary: How livable is Connecticut for the aging population?

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From 2013 to 2025, the share of Connecticut residents older than 60 is expected to grow 44 percent, according to University of Connecticut projections. And given that, nationwide, nine in 10 adults prefer to stay in their homes as they grow older, the question for local and state governments should be: How can we help an aging population maintain healthy and happy lifestyles, regardless of age or ability?

It’s a question that the World Health Organization (WHO) has tried to tackle internationally, collaborating with researchers worldwide to define characteristics of ‘age-inclusivity’ and to advise communities, such as New Haven, on how to provide for their aging populations.

So on behalf of WHO and with support from local partners, we at DataHaven conducted a study for the Greater New Haven region using data from 1,300 respondents to our 2012 Community Wellbeing Survey, as well as data measuring a region’s physical, social and economic environment. Fourteen other cities worldwide also conducted similar studies for WHO, which we’ll talk about later in this piece.

What did it say about Greater New Haven?

For Greater New Haven, this study revealed some striking facts about older residents, who are expected to account for a third of the region’s population by 2025:

  • More than 80 percent of older respondents said they are satisfied with where they live.
  • They are civically engaged: More than 90 percent are registered to vote.
  • But they are not as engaged in the community in other ways: Fewer than half of older adults volunteered in the past year; only a third often attended cultural events. That said, these rates are similar to those of younger age groups.
  • Older adults living in the city generally have access to streets, transportation and public spaces. But in suburban areas, sidewalks and public transportation are much less accessible to older residents. (Given development patterns in non-urban areas, DataHaven Executive Director Mark Abraham notes that a revised edition of the WHO indicator guide should include access to private cars. In 2012, DataHaven found at least 10,000 residents who did not have regular access to a car and also felt that they could not rely on public transit.)

But if we dig deeper, we can find more definition in the data by comparing high- and low-income respondents. We defined low-income as those with an annual household income of less than $30,000.

More than 80 percent of older respondents said they are satisfied with where they live.

  • Among older low-income residents, 37 percent assessed their own health as poor or fair. Only 16 percent of all other older adults said the same.
  • Low-income older adults were just as likely to register to vote as other older adults.
  • But they were less likely to engage in other aspects of community life. Just over 20 percent of low-income older adults often participated in cultural activities, compared to over 40 percent of all other older adults.
  • In other measures of wellbeing, low-income older adults were significantly less likely than other older adults to have access to the internet, to feel safe walking outside in their own neighborhoods at night, and to believe they could influence local decision-making.

Economic instability may be a contributing factor to the relatively poorer health and lower civic engagement among low-income older adults. Low-income older adults — more than half of whom said they were just getting by or finding it difficult to manage financially — may have trouble accessing transportation, receiving quality medical care or spending time and money on leisure activities. Further, the stress caused by financial instability could directly impact health.

Why is the U.S. aging?

This national aging trend is rooted in the baby boomer generation — those born from 1946 to 1964, in the aftermath of World War II. By 1964 boomers accounted for almost 40 percent of the nation’s population. As they transition from middle to old age, they remain a significant percentage of the population, causing the nation as a whole to be older: In 1970, the median age was 28.1 years; in 2013, it was 37.3.

Meanwhile, life expectancies continue to increase. In 1950, it was 66.0 years for men and 71.7 years for women, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In 2010, it was 76.2 years for men and 81.0 years for women, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Which parts of Connecticut are aging?

Aging in Connecticut has mirrored national trends, but various regions of the state have aged differently. From 1980 to 2013, populations of older adults have increased fastest in suburban neighborhoods — Fairfield County, the outer suburbs of New Haven and Hartford, and much of New London County. This trend is expected to accelerate as baby boomers continue to age. Meanwhile, it appears the number of older adults in urban areas has declined.

These maps show population changes from 1980 to 2013 by census tract, based on a database that adjusts for frequent changes in the boundaries of these small geographic areas.

Those 75 and older increased at a quick rate — from 144,689 people in 1980 to 250,862 in 2013, a 73 percent increase.

The children and young adult population has also shifted. From 1980 to 2013, the state’s total population rose by 478,401 (a 15 percent increase), but the population of adults age 20 to 44 declined by 3,732 (a 0.3 percent decline). That said, some urban neighborhoods — especially in Greater New Haven — saw large increases in their populations of younger people. Given that many jobs are returning to urban centers from the suburbs, the increasing young urban population reveals an important trend for Connecticut’s workforce.

Access DataHaven’s interactive maps showing the population of older adults in Connecticut in 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2013 (65 years and older or 75 years and older) and demonstrating population change in Connecticut by age group, from 1980 to 2013.

How can we assess Connecticut’s inclusivity?

DataHaven’s research partner — Connecticut’s Legislative Commission on Aging — is a nonpartisan research body committed to promoting policies that benefit an older generation. However, Alyssa Norwood, the commission’s project manager, said that the body is devoted to creating livable communities for all age groups.

“We really embrace this idea of a lifespan approach,” she said. “Research shows that there’s a lot of similarity in lifestyle preferences across [all ages].”

The commission assesses community livability in two areas: physical environment and social environment. The physical environment encompasses transportation, housing, public spaces and buildings, and planning and zoning, while the social environment concerns community engagement as well as health and social services.

Norwood said that, while Connecticut must make further progress, the state has already seen success in pursuing livable, age-inclusive communities.

For example, statewide and local investments in bus and rail systems, bike and pedestrian pathways, and planning principles focused on dense, community-driven development should create physical environments that are more accessible for those with limited individual mobility.

Abraham added that community design should be evaluated by various types of residents to understand its complete impact.

“Universal, age-inclusive design benefits Greater New Haven by making our towns more comfortable places to live, and the services they provide easier to understand and access,” Abraham said.

Abraham added that community design should be evaluated by various types of residents to understand its complete impact.

“One of my favorite examples is a crosswalk,” he said. “A simple, painted crosswalk across several lanes of traffic could be appropriate for able-bodied adults, but it is perceived differently by children, adults with strollers, or people with physical limitations to their mobility.”

What does this look like in other cities?

Age-friendly cities gather at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva (Photo courtesy of the World Health Organization)

In early June, WHO hosted the 15 pilot cities at its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, to share their experiences during the pilot process. The results will inform WHO’s synthesis of the various pilot site reports, which in turn will form the basis for finalizing the indicator guide.

Abraham, who presented at the conference, said the discussion at the WHO meeting focused on the rigor, standardization and potential adaptability of age-friendly community indicators across a variety of global contexts. They also touched on the sustainability of the process itself. According to Abraham, among the themes that emerged from the various pilot sites are:

  • Iran, China, Spain and Argentina: Each of the four pilot sites from these countries stressed how access to local-level data on issues like transit access and sidewalk quality empower local residents of all ages to advocate for changes that would improve their neighborhoods.
  • Fishguard and Goodwick, Wales: The city mentioned the need to connect younger and older adults in order to improve perceptions of safety within the community. A program in Fishguard and Goodwick sought integration by ensuring that younger adults were represented within workshops on age-inclusive community design. Connecting generations is important to consider for future planning in Greater New Haven as well, Abraham said.
  • New Delhi, India: They highlighted community integration, focusing on the role of government officials and media organizations in educating members of the public across generations on issues of aging.

Dr. Megumi Kano and Paul Rosenberg, Officers for Urban Health at WHO, also underscored community-wide ownership of age-inclusive indicators as a strategy for designing livable cities.

“The community should be engaged at the outset in developing the vision for the project,” Kano said. “They should be empowered to engage with decisions about how indicator data should be collected, validated, shared and used to improve age-inclusiveness in the community.”

Such an approach, Kano and Rosenberg said, ensures the sustainability of age-inclusive policies in the face of changing local leadership.

What’s next?

We have expanded the Community Wellbeing Survey this year to include a sample of over 16,000 adults from cities and towns throughout the state. The survey data — available in fall 2015 — will allow DataHaven and the 100-plus partner organizations working on the survey to evaluate livability across the lifespan in every Connecticut community.

Building on the research conducted for WHO, local stakeholders will continue to advance community livability and age-inclusivity throughout the state: the Commission on Aging will use the 2015 Wellbeing Survey and other data to create a statewide indicators report on livability across the lifespan, and we at DataHaven will use our research to promote both the efforts of service-providing partners and data-driven conversations on wellbeing and aging.


Erica Pandey is a summer fellow at DataHaven, a formal partner of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership with a 25-year history of public service to Greater New Haven and Connecticut. DataHaven’s mission is to improve quality of life by compiling, sharing and interpreting public data for effective decision making.

The DataHaven study cited in this piece was conducted on behalf of WHO by Mary Buchanan and Mark Abraham of DataHaven, with support from Connecticut’s Legislative Commission on Aging, Connecticut Council for Philanthropy and Connecticut Community Foundation. The population change analyses depicted in the maps are based on information from the Neighborhood Change Database (NCDB) 2010 created by GeoLytics and the Urban Institute with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, 2012.

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What do you think?

  • Don Gonsalves

    Property taxes are far to high in CT. Most town average 2.0% or over where the national average is 1.25%. This hurting seniors of all economic levels and is the main reason people are leaving the state. Also why are nursing homes so expensive here averaging $155,000 per year . We are the second highest in the US. WHY??Many places which are just as rich as CT have costs far lower.

  • Roger87

    “From 1980 to 2013, the state’s total population rose by 478,401 (a 15 percent increase), but the population of adults age 20 to 44 declined by 3,732 (a 0.3 percent decline).”

    Red flag, warning signs, hello?? Even if CT isn’t exactly a retiree’s haven, it’s obviously far worse for young and middle-aged adults. Most people in the 20-34 age group I know are either moving out of state or at least considering doing so within the next few years. Inertia or family is what keeps those who remain. Hint: it’s not “property taxes” that are driving them away. The wealthier towns in the state are run by and for the interests of elderly homeowners. You know, those retirees with home values in the seven figures, on Medicare funded by their children’s payroll taxes, complaining about being taxed too much to fund the schools (the same good schools that keep their home values high). Poor babies, don’t worry, your kids won’t stick around anyways. Hopefully they will let you visit them in Dallas or Atlanta.